- Children of the Greek Civil War: Refugees and the Politics of Memory by Loring M. Danforth, and Riki Van Boeschoten
Loring M. Danforth and Riki Van Boeschoten open their book with the advertisement for a workshop the authors gave at the Program in Hellenic Studies, Princeton University, on 10 May 2005. The subject of the workshop was the evacuation of about 25,000 children by members of the Communist Party of Greece from Northern Greece to Eastern Europe during the Greek Civil War of 1946–49—an operation characterized by the Greek government as “genocide” and a “crime against humanity.” As per the advertisement, Danforth and Van Boeschoten would draw on the life stories of refugee children to offer a critique of political master narratives informed by ideologically motivated interpretations of the evacuation program.
The workshop became a “crucial moment” (4) for the authors. Leading up to the event, they received numerous angry messages and threats both from academics (Hellenists working in various academic disciplines) and, more generally, from members of the Greek diaspora. The hostility reached a crescendo at the workshop itself, which, following Danforth and Van Boeschoten’s presentation, saw a prominent member of the Greek diaspora (a rather well-known author and columnist) set off on an angry tirade and storm out of the room when asked to give Danforth and Van Boeschoten a chance to respond. He, and others, accused the authors of misrepresenting what really happened. Emotions ran high.
In a testament to their professionalism and dedication to the project, the authors explain in these opening pages of the book that they followed up with each critic, reconsidered the terms of their inquiry and revisited the analysis of their primary data. What follows is a masterful, innovative text that makes multiple notable contributions to anthropology, intervenes positively into various dangerous political trajectories and, crucially, remains grounded in, respectful of, and committed to the memories, understandings and desires of the authors’ primary consultants. This is ethnography at its finest.
Opening the text with this difficult scene and with a notably auto-ethnographic tone is certainly a clever move. It helps the reader to connect with Danforth and Van Boeschoten while introducing the ongoing importance and contentiousness of their subject. This opening section also hints at the various analytical and methodological innovations the text has to offer. One of their critical moves, we discover, was to expand the ethnographic base of the project following the workshop to include not only children sent away from Greece by Communist Party members, but also children who were sent to paidopoleis (lit. “children’s cities”) in other parts of the country by the Greek government during the same period—indeed, both the political left and right evacuated children during the Greek Civil War. This brings the lived experience of the war, separation, exile and life thereafter among refugee children into more direct analytical focus. This also makes more provocative the authors’ assertion that various commonalities run through the stories of child refugees and, moreover, that these commonalities challenge various collective narratives and the national “history” of the event.
In general terms, the book offers significant theoretical contributions to refugee studies, the anthropology of children and childhood, and the politics of memory, and it challenges researchers to consider the unique positionality of children in history, political geography and ideological conflict. However, I would argue that it achieves something further, something positive for the consultants who contributed to the text. Danforth and Van Boeschoten explain that one of their strategies in critiquing master narratives is to question the universalisms that underpin these. They do this by way of giving power, agency and voice to those who lived the events in question rather than those who interpret them. In doing so, the refugee children who until now have been lumped into categories defined by others, and whose individual stories have been glossed, redacted or ignored, are permitted to step out front, past lingering political frames, to contribute to the building of mutual recognition...